What I have written

Virginia Baxter: Haunted Daunted and Flaunted, Wendy Houstoun; Jenny Holzer; Artists Week Keynote Address

One of the problems of writing about performances is the difficulty of notetaking in the dark. The disruptions it causes to other audience members, its potential to distract the performer, not to mention your own thoughts, are all reasons to avoid it. At the beginning of the festival I bought a pen with a light in it but it’s March 12 and I haven’t used it. Anyway, while you’re writing something down, you risk missing something else. The other difficulty is actually deciphering the notes you make afterwards. It’s like trying to remember dreams. The only words I wrote at the conclusion of Wendy Houstoun’s Haunted Daunted and Flaunted were her final ones. Who knows why I felt the need to write them down. I think endings in the theatre are given way too much importance, like nothing else has happened up to that point. I smiled when Hans Peter Kuhn said in the Forum on Tuesday March 10 that he and Junko Wada worked for a set time on Who’s Afraid of Anything? and when the time ran out, the work was complete. So much for endings.

Anyway the words I thought I scrawled on my program after Wendy Houstoun’s performance were “You can hear the human sound we are sitting here speaking” but looking at the scrawl I found “icnsethehunanoisewersittinghermak” or “I can see the human noise we are sitting here making”. A friend said she thought she heard something about “cities” which just goes to show how imprecise are the twists and turns of memory—more or less the territory that Wendy Houstoun is probing in this remarkable work.

“I am awake in the place where women die.” (Jenny Holzer)

After a festival full of words, my notebook holds a collection of such sentences—impressions, paragraphs scratched over drinks after performances, addresses, snatches of sudden poetry, eavesdroppings, meeting points, restaurants, snippets carried around in my head until I could find a place to write them down, headlines (like the one that appeared the day after the Barbara Hanrahan book was released—“Diary from the Grave” and Friday’s mysterious “Drug Dog in Limbo”. At this stage of the festival there’s an impulse to make connections so today Jenny Holzer and Wendy Houstoun meet on the page.

In note form, Jenny Holzer reads: “Repressed childhood/desire to paint 4th dimension. Art school—attempts reduce daunting reading list distilling books to sentences. Public posters/inflammatory essays/truisms”. (I almost broke my rule and stood up at question time to tell her about Ken Campbell who when he was in Sydney a few years ago performing his show The Furtive Nudist, spent days at the Museum of Contemporary Art writing a list of questions to which Jenny Holzer’s statements might be the answers). “Now installations. Latest work Lustmord—installations of words taking in whole body experience (where the eyes go). Words backwards/forwards/ reflected, juxtaposed with human bones to be picked up and read. ‘Resorted’ to writing, she said, because there are many places it can go but it doesn’t come easily.” Of the many sentences in her presentation I wrote down this one which came from a friend who was assaulted by a policeman: “When someone beats you with a flashlight, you make light shine in all directions”. “Nowadays—romantic inclination—writing text on water—as light—from multiple perspectives.” In Lustmord she writes as the perpetrator, the victim and the observer.

Wendy Houstoun too is all three. Before she enters, a voice from the speakers announces some random violence has been perpetrated on a woman. The voice appeals for witnesses, tells us that an actor will recreate the incident. The work is inspired by the BBC’s Crimewatch. True to life and art after this, my memory of the precise order of events is not sharp. Well, I have sharp memories of incidents. How sharp? Very. Particular movements? No. I’m not a dancer but I’d like to be. Details? I don’t…wait a minute, I remember a sequence where she took us through her dancing life by decades, going way back to the foetal position in 1969. I remember fragments of movements shaking her body. What kind of movements? Well like I said, I’m not a da…but they were unpredictable, unfamiliar, beautiful, no wait, wait, some were memories of other choreographies. I remember there was a Swedish bell dance she had learned which turned out to be incredibly useful, and I agreed with what she danced, sorry, what she said about jazz ballet and the Celtic dance revival. But that makes it sound satirical which is not what I meant to… What do I mean to say? Well the subtlety of… How? Well I remember she said she spent a year moving in two dimensions and how funny she was. But that makes it sound…There was much more. How much? Like I said, all I have is fragments, commentaries on her own body. She let us into her body and showed us her fear. That’s what I said, fear.

Wendy Houstoun is from Manchester, I think. Holzer’s crisp monotone is US mid-West. She is dryly witty, measured and fluid in the flesh. The words she exhibits electronically are short, sharp, sometimes savage. When someone asks her to explain what she means by “Protect Me From What I Want” she laughs and says “I don’t think I can”. Wendy Houstoun’s text is continuous, reminding us just what a physical act speech is. Unlike much dance using the spoken word, here it is not segregated in patches, or voiced-over, or used for interruption or pause. Words are inseparable from her body. She doesn’t enhance them with movement. They are partners. She does little more than speak them as she dances (no mean feat)—speaking of which, how Wendy Houstoun’s bare feet show the shape of a dancing life. And this work could not exist without the words. Without them the wonderful sequence of visual jokes (“Two small movements go into a bar”) would fall flat. The argument from people who don’t like the idea of dancers speaking is that dance has its own meaning and words get in the way. In Wendy Houstoun’s hands, feet and neck, the meanings of both words and movements begin to open up.

On an earlier page of my notebook is one of my first festival experiences, La Tristeza Complice, and as I flip the pages, Les Ballets C. de la B. become the bodies of Jenny Holzer’s “It takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were doing”. I wish she had seen those bodies dancing.

Haunted Daunted and Flaunted, Wendy Houstoun, The Price Theatre, March 10; Jenny Holzer; Artists Week Keynote Address, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 11, Adelaide Festival 2000

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 7

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998